On May 10, with the slogan of “Yes to Water, No to gold”, more than 50,000 Colombians hit the streets of the city of Bucaramanga in the department of Santander in defense of water and the Santurbán páramo ecosystem, and against the mining project of the Sociedad Minera de Santander – Minesa. Minesa is an gold mining company of which the United Arab Emirates is the majority stakeholder. The Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán páramo gave the call for mobilizations.
School and university students, workers, activists and trade unionists from all sectors began mobilizing at 2 pm from two different locations, the Puerta del Sol and the Industrial University of Santander (UIS). The protesters marched with banners and placards that read: ‘No to Mining’, ‘Less gold and more Water’, ‘Water is Gold’, ‘Water is a right, not a business’, ‘Water cannot be sold, Water cannot be traded, Water is priceless’, ‘We save Water, we save Life’, ‘Defending Water is defending Life’, ‘Water is Life’, etc. Many marched with blue and white balloons, wearing t-shirts that read ‘our gold is water’ and several participants had their bodies painted.
After marching for more than 3 hours, the march concluded at the Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento plaza. At the plaza, music groups, including Herencia de Timbiquí and Café Tacuba, among others, performed and expressed their support for the mobilization.
The governor of Santander and the mayor of Bucaramanga also supported the mobilization. They declared the afternoon of May 10 as a civic afternoon* so that people in great number could join the march.
In Colombia, nearly two million people rely on the Santurbán páramo for their freshwater supply. The páramos or the high-altitude forests and wetlands absorb moisture from fog and therefore, are a natural source of water. They also absorb large amount of carbon, mitigating climate change and provide refuge for hundreds of threatened species. The land in and around the Santurbán páramo contains gold and other minerals. Gold mining activities in its vicinity will be disastrous as it would lead to the discharge of large amounts of cyanide, mercury and arsenic, polluting the water coming from the páramo.
Similar mobilizations demanding the protection of Santurbán páramo were carried out in the cities of Cúcuta and Bogotá also. In Bogotá, the protesters staged a demonstration outside the office of the National Authority of Environmental License (ANLA), demanding that the government not issue the environmental license to the mining company. In February, Minesa submitted an application for an environmental license from the Colombian national government to start extracting gold and other minerals in the province of Soto Norte, which is very close to Santurbán páramo.
A month ago, a video came out, in which the president of Minesa, Santiago Urdinola, was seen talking about the strategy to obtain the exploitation permit from the ANLA. “If I burn the world down, but in Bogotá they feel we are fine, we are fine; (…) If the decision makers feel calm, in spite of daily marches there, if they feel that it is part of the exercise, (…) that it is [Gustavo] Petro [opposition leader] who is marching to knock down the government of Duque, and they say ‘I’m not going to let Petro knock me down’, it works for us;” said Urdinola. “Where the president [Duque] feels that giving this license is going to take away the political possibility in Santander and the region, surely it will be a decision that he will not be willing to take. Therefore, Santander is fundamental. Our area of influence is called California and Suratá. The area of indirect influence is called Soto Norte. But in Bogotá, nobody cares about it, because nobody knows what it is or how it is. What they care about is Bucaramanga/Santander,” he added.
Recently, on May 2, the Colombian lower house approved the new National Development Plan PND, which was fiercely criticized by vast sectors of the Colombian society for its anti-people policies as well as focusing all “development” on the extraction of natural resources. Although, the PND facilitates fracking and mining activities in Colombia, it remains to be seen if the neoliberal government of president Iván Duque will grant the required license, putting the country’s ecological system at a serious risk.
*When a government official declares a day or a civic afternoon through a decree, it is considered to be a day of rest or a holiday. Usually, it is done to call on the community to join and participate in the activities scheduled for the declared civic day.